Interview with Fernando Velázquez
On the world film scoring scene, few countries seem to be producing such melody-rich composers as Spain, a region that has seen any number of unabashedly musical work from such artists as Roque Banos (“Intruders”), Javier Navarette (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Zeltia Montes (“Lovetown”) and Pascal Gaigne (“Chaika”). With many of these composers now scoring films on our side of the ocean, it’s likely that the next wave of major Hollywood recognition will be taking Fernando Velázquez in its wake, especially for how powerfully he captures the most disastrous aquatic catastrophe in recent memory with his score for “The Impossible” (hardcopy already on Quartet at Screenarchves.com, and on itunes December 11th via Lions Gate Music).
Taken from the true story of a family sundered by a tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean in 2004, the movie charts their desperate course to be reunited, let alone survive, amidst an islands-destroying catastrophe that claimed over 230,000 lives. Just don’t expect equally gigantic waves of orchestral manipulation for Velázquez, who delivers a work of immense emotional that’s far more about tragic, personal devastation, as embodied by the hundreds of survivors praying to find their loved ones amidst the debris, and human wreckage.
As with the nationality of a family that’s been turned from Spanish to British for this telling, “The Impossible” shows Velázquez’s dexterity at accompanying the English language, a feat he’s previously done with the eerie score for the incest drama “Savage Grace,” and the chillingly propulsive rhythms of “Devil’s” elevator from hell. Yet it’s among the numerous movie’s he’s scored in Spain (ranging from the epic historical sweep of “Lope” to the off-kilter espionage documentary “Garbo the Spy”), Fernando Velázquez is likely best known in this country for his suspenseful horror score to “The Orphanage,” whose director Juan Antonio Bayona he’s impressively teamed again with here.
What links “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible” is the horror of parents going through hell on earth to find their loved ones, a quest driven by the kind of thematically anguished core that also propels Velázquez and Bayona’s new collaboration. Certainly, no ghost story score (which Velázquez has done again for Universal Pictures with the upcoming “Mama”) can compare to thousands of battered, traumatized people, a woeful sea of humanity that lies between a mother, father and their three young boys. Alternately suspenseful and anguished, Velázquez varies between tense strings, a soaring orchestra, and the chamber intimacy of violin and piano, all joined by an elegiac, tender theme and chorus to bring a universally touching sense of deliverance from “The Impossible.” They’re qualities that are in complete synch with Bayona’s excellent film that stands as one of the most astonishingly realized and believable “disaster movies” to be realized in a cinema that often prefers melodrama to the “based on” truth. “The Impossible” earns its tears honestly in a way whose subtlety and dealing with the unimaginable is likely to be received by Oscar voters with as much emotional impact, and well-deserved accolades.
Do you remember your reaction to the Tsunami at the time, and did you know anyone who was affected by it?
I remember the moment and some shots on TV, but I didn´t know anybody. It seemed like a huge disaster, but far, far away. Incidentally, I got to know there were friends of friends missing.
When you got the assignment, did you do any research into the survivors’ stories?
I didn’t do any specific research on these tsunami survivors, but I read a bit about survival stories and about the feelings of those who survived. The script by Sergio G. Sánchez is beautiful and did reflect about survival, help and love under extreme conditions. I think they did a terrific job putting all these concepts together.
The film seems so real that at first thought one could imagine it being entirely unscored. Did that ever cross your mind, or do you think having music makes it watchable?
I think it is a clever thought to start with “Do we want to put music in the movie? And if so, why do we want it?” Of course, Juan Antonio had this idea too. The film would work fine without music but we thought it does even better with it. As Maria (the survivor whose experience the movie is based on) said, “We tell with the music all these things that cannot be told. The music makes the experience more intense.”
Do you think there’s anything in common with how both “The Impossible” and “The Orphanage” deal with horror, family and separation?
The links are obvious, and, in a way, the stories are similar, although the final outcome is completely different. In “The Impossible” the unspeakable, the horror, have nearly no music. There is only a theme for death but it is melodic. The score delivers very little “horror” or “action” and concentrates on feelings that have to do with love, help, understanding, mercy, compassion and also just feelings we cannot name. I think the score “says” all these things that we put under these names. In “The Orphanage” we had these ideas, but the score worked also in a genre basis that we decided to lose in “The impossible”. I guess the story is too real and scary to try to make it even deeper. But we have a “reunion” moment in both movies, and the musical theme has a longing feeling for both of them.
How did you and Juan Antonio develop the musical approach for “The Impossible?”
Juan Antonio is quite careful, and in a way, obsessive with all the sides of the production. We knew that we couldn’t give up until we could found this theme that would express the characters’ feelings that couldn’t be told with words. The theme itself has got three sections. The first concentrates on the family. The second is a bridge that’s about them trying to find each other. And the third part is an outbreak of deep, wordless emotions. That may sound a little analytical, but I think it is quite clear when you hear the music. Once we were happy with this theme, we explored the movie with it. Our biggest care was to find the right dimension for the melody to make the best out of the storytelling without pushing too much with the music, which was a great temptation because it would work everywhere, especially with the amazing visuals. Of course we worked harder for key moments like the ending, where we wanted to help understand the wife’s feelings, or the moment when she’s dragged to a safer place by this nameless wonderful old Thai man. As we worked on the movie we realized a theme would make the thread of their oldest son looking for the father even more solid. We used a 3/4 ostinato with the timpani and some cello arpeggios to go along with the teenager’s desperation and his frenetic search. The solo piano and violin also play a prominent part in the score to give a chamber music-like quality to it.
Do you think there’s something immediately tragic about these instruments?
I thing they address the right dimension, which is the human feelings of individuals, as the story itself. We used the cello solo, as it is commonly felt to be very human and tender.
“The Impossible” has a particularly memorable main theme. How did it come about?
We worked very hard on every articulation. I could trace the genetics of the theme by looking at the sketches I was writing, but there is some magical about it that came by itself. And of course, I am grateful I was given the chance to display some melody, which is not that common these days.
How did you want to use voices in the score, and what did you want them to represent?
In a way, the voices mean death, not in a horrible-panic way, but as something the oldest son Lucas realizes for the first time. It’s always present as a possibilty. However we tried to be very careful with the use of these chorus, so we used some cluster of low male voices that work subtly.
Were there ever parts where you thought you had to scale your music back because you thought the score might be getting too emotional, or manipulative?
These chances were present all the time, so it was just a matter of taste. Our reference was the full respect towards the people and the story we were telling. We could have gone beyond that, which might have been right for some audiences. But being emotional isn’t an issue, as the story is emotional, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of addressing its nature. As the woman whom the wife was based on told us, “If you think the movie is intense, you don´t want to know how intense was the reality was.”
How difficult was it to retain a sense of hope and comfort to the score, as opposed to making it too depressing?
The reason why the real family wanted to tell the story helped a lot. “The Impossible” is not a hero’s story. It is not an adventure movie. The family wanted to tell the story because it’s telling something about human condition, how we can be “nothing” when nature is unleashed against us. And it’s in that situation that we can try to help each other. That message is subtle, and I think is told really humbly as a tiny light in the darkness. But that light of humanity is in the heart of the movie, how the human condition can fight on, and how love prevails, even as a weak voice against suffering.
While you take an overall emotional approach to the film, how did you want to musically deal with the “disaster” elements in the film, as well as the suspense if the family will be reunited?
The disaster itself doesn’t have too much music, as the images speak for themselves. At one time, wee scored the whole tsunami in an “action” key, and the result was terrific as an action clip, but it didn´t have a meaning for the whole structure of the movie. So we dropped the whole five-minute cue. The disaster is really only heard in how Lucas realizes it in a deep, subtle way with this ” death ” theme for the male low voices. For the “will they find each other” sections we didn´t use any different orchestration or themes. The musical material is always the same, and it is only the theme that speeds up and gets anxious with Lucas when he thinks he has seen his father and runs to look for him.
“The Impossible” has an incredible emotional wallop for audiences. How much do you think a score can contribute to people crying, and are there any tonal qualities that go to that end?
The score is just a part of the storytelling, and I don´t think it would work by itself. We tried to create a whole experience and the music is only a part of it. The score may make the experience deeper, but it doesn´t bring along anything that it is not already there. And if it the music works, it’s because it uses a language that we all share and understand. We have a wonderful western tradition of melodies back from Claudio Monteverdi to John Williams, and I think we are lucky to share this language. I have lately realized this may be why we invented music. For if we could describe everything with words, then we wouldn’t need art! Musicians can contribute to people sharing feelings, and this a great power of art, isn´t it? And I love the human dimension of music. So I think we are very lucky that composers like myself can contribute, even a little, with this kind of storytelling to make people feel more human.
Do you think there’s a “European” approach to this score that an American composer might not have necessarily taken? And do you think there’s a more melodic approach to film scoring in general in Europe that your scores there typify?
I don´t think it is necessarily European thing, although I understand the tag. It´s more that films there take personal approach, though I don’t think that’s exclusive to Europe. But there was a lot of bravery from Bayona and the producers to go with this way of telling “The Impossible,” which runs lots of risks. But melodies are always there in film scoring, and they will always be. Composers like Georges Delerue, John Williams and Ennio Morricone don’t need a passport when their music is so universal.
You’ve done two “studio” scores with “Devil” and “Mama.” But do you hope any awards exposure for “The Impossible” could make a move here possible for you to score a whole range of non-genre subjects in Hollywood, and would you want to make that transition?
Of course this hope is always there, and I would be happy if it happened. But our only thought in making “The Impossible” was to move people. And to know that people have been touched by this movie is deeply rewarding.